Space creators change lives of young people by turning house into a home

Mar 04, 2020

Every wall, nook and cranny inside Brisbane Youth Service’s Windsor House has become a space to nurture, educate and grow the young people who make their way through its front doors. “We want to create a culture that not only makes young people feel safe but one that’s inspiring,” Windsor House Manager, Eli Brooker said.

Eli is embracing a dynamic, new research-practice project that explores the power of turning a house into a home. Young people experiencing homelessness are usually impacted by multiple, complex layers of disadvantage and trauma. At a time when crisis housing is a young person’s best, or only, housing option, it can be easy to think that just any house is enough— ‘Surely, it’s better than having nowhere to live at all?’ But crisis accommodation is commonly focused on providing only the basic living necessities, rather than creating spaces which can transform how vulnerable and disadvantaged young people experience the world.

“We’ve considered all five senses in Windsor House… it was a floor to ceiling transformation. The entire environment is now an embracing space, which inspires and adds value to young people’s lives. The moment they walk in the door it’s a sensory experience,” Eli explained.

“Young people only stay with us for a short period of time, so the experience has to be impactful. We want to make sure they never forget the positive experiences they had here—the lessons, the learnings and the care.”

A new partnership between BYS and Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the project draws on key concepts from therapeutic environment and geography theories to experiment with therapeutic space in crisis accommodation—an under resourced and poorly researched area.

Dr Danielle Davidson from QUT’s Faculty of Health (School of Public Health and Social Work) is leading the research and has created a practical framework to transform Windsor House’s humble and functional rooms into warm and therapeutic spaces.

The entire environment is now an embracing space, which inspires and adds value to young people’s lives. The moment they walk in the door it’s a sensory experience,” Windsor House Manager, Eli Brooker.

Now, the Windsor House team is looking beyond simply providing a physically ‘safe’ living situation towards creating nurturing and learning growth spaces, which foster emotional safety and a feeling of connection and community. The emerging school of thought is that a therapeutic environment creates both a stimulant for change and a foundation upon which young people can experiment with new ways of being in the world.  

“Vulnerable young people often say, ‘I don’t know what I want’, ‘I don’t want to be a part of anything’, ‘I’m not worthy’ or ‘I have nothing to offer’. Transforming a space is about creating a strong sense of self-identity and self-value, and that goes way beyond getting a young person onto Centrelink and into a house,” Eli said.

SPACE CREATORS: An new and innovative project is exploring the power of transforming a humble house into a home.

“We want the house to be an informative space and a nurturing community. The project is improving service delivery and practice and the physical space itself all at the same time.

“Danielle established a process to explore how we were using space in the house by observing and engaging young people, so we understood how the house was working… ‘What spaces are they using? What spaces aren’t they using and why?’

“Together, we developed the framework and research-practice project before we interviewed young people and the workers. Those observations were analysed and then we implemented the changes.”

Dr Davidson will use her research to deliver an academic paper, providing literature on how to harness therapeutic environments to help young people with trauma. The paper will share pragmatic learning about creating spaces which evoke and reinforce emotional vocabulary, supporting safe emotional experience and integration.

“The project is an entirely new and innovative approach to creating positive experiences for vulnerable young people who have been impacted by homelessness and trauma. We scoured existing literature but couldn’t find any evidence of therapeutic space theories being used in the youth homelessness space,” Eli said.

“The rooms were given a makeover with inspirational quotes on the walls, a fresh colour palette, new furnishings and lamps to create soft lighting. We built shelves and put personal, cherished objects on them to teach young people a new way to narrate and celebrate their life.

“By the time young people come to Windsor House they’ve usually experienced years of trauma. Here they get to stop, recoup, plan forward and learn how to create positive and better memories. It’s about teaching them to narrate their life story in an affirmative way and to keep focusing on what’s working well. We’re having lots of meaningful conversations because of these beautiful new spaces.”